There are many, many programs to help families deal with food insecurity - but 68 percent of pantries, 42 percent of soup kitchens, and 15 percent of emergency shelters rely solely on volunteers and have no paid staff. That means these programs have an urgent need for people to step up and help.
Recently, I was privileged to be a part of my hometown's efforts to reduce food insecurity: I volunteered for a local program by the Greater Chicago Food Depository called Produce Mobile. "These brightly colored, beverage-style trucks take donated fresh fruits and vegetables directly to hundreds of hungry people across Chicago on a weekly basis. Many of these individuals live in areas where produce is difficult or costly to obtain."
Volunteering for our local site brought an abstract concept into reality for me just in sheer numbers: we served 14,000 pounds of produce to 409 households, representing 1534 individuals.
What does 14,000 pounds of produce look like? Each volunteer was assigned a pallet of produce to divide into individual portions. I started out with a small group at a table with carrots: gorgeous, huge, and vibrant - the type that I fondly call "horse carrots." Produce Mobile workers delivered a pallet of 40-lb bags stacked nearly 6 feet high, and after some quick mental calculating, we got to work dividing the carrots into small grocery bags. While we were working, we couldn't help but chat about all the wonderful things you could make with big, flavorful carrots like that - some of them were real monsters, several inches in diameter! My husband was packing up beautiful turnips in much the same way, while other tables worked on mountains of sweet potatoes, sweet corn, green peppers and cantaloupes.
We had about a two-hour headstart on our 400 patrons, although they gathered on the other side of the parking lot almost as soon as the truck finished dropping off its load. Other volunteers managed some sort of numbering system to help patrons navigate the process. From that point on, we were hard-pressed to keep up with the demand for produce as the bags we had prepacked were quickly handed out, and the people kept on coming! Even though it was a lot of work, it was also fun - patrons were appreciative, volunteers were kind and sometimes silly, and working in the fresh air and sunshine was gratifying. We arrived that morning shortly after 8am, and we finished up around lunchtime, but the time flew past (at least after I'd run home for a scarf, hat and extra layers!)
If you live in the Chicago area and want to offer support for healthy eating, I highly recommend volunteering for this program. You can find out more at the Greater Chicago Food Depository website, or in Evanston IL, you can volunteer through Interfaith Action of Evanston's website.